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How an Expert in Blowing Things Up Decided He Had Seen Enough

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Tod Worner - published on 04/11/16

John Fletcher Moulton decided that what lies between Law and Free Choice is something we lose at our peril

In a modern culture that is adrift, it is good to be reminded of the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Each week it is my humble privilege to offer one selection from an indispensable canon of essays, speeches and books, which will light a candle in the darkness. It is a canon I have assembled over many years that I hope will challenge & inspire each reader. But most importantly, I hope it will remind us of what is True in an age of untruth. And if we know what is True, we are more apt to do what is Right. – TW

It is not exactly clear when he gave the speech, but it seems very clear why he gave it. In the early 20th century, John Fletcher Moulton was a brilliant British Lord with fluency in mathematics, electrical engineering and the law. But in the British effort to arrest the onslaught of German aggression in World War I, Lord Moulton found his true expertise rested with the creation and manufacture of explosives. Having died in 1921, only three years after the Great War ended, Lord Moulton had seen enough. The ravages of militant German law, on one hand, and terrorizing anarchists on the other, offered instructive warnings to a British society ever-oscillating between unforgiving law and unapologetic freedom. And so a few years before his death, Lord Moulton felt called to give a warning.

Follow me in examining the three great domains of Human Action. First comes the domain of Positive Law, where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us, which must be obeyed. Next comes the domain of Free Choice, which includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom. But between these two there is a third large and important domain in which there rules neither Positive Law nor Absolute Freedom. In that domain there is no law which inexorably determines our course of action, and yet we feel that we are not free to choose as we would. The degree of this sense of a lack of complete freedom in this domain varies in every case. It grades from a consciousness of a Duty nearly as strong as Positive Law, to a feeling that the matter is all but a question of personal choice … it is the domain of Obedience to the Unenforceable. The obedience is the obedience of a man to that which he cannot be forced to obey. He is the enforcer of the law upon himself … The country which lies between Law and Free Choice I always think of as the domain of Manners. To me, Manners in this broad sense signifies the doing that which you should do although you are not obliged to do it … The dangers that threaten the maintenance of this domain of Manners arise from its situation between the region of Absolute Choice and the region of Positive Law…In many countries – especially in the younger nations – there is a tendency to make laws to regulate everything. On the other hand, there is a growing tendency to treat matters that are not regulated by Positive Law as being matters of Absolute Choice. Both these movements are encroachments on the middle land, and to my mind the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of Obedience to the Unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens and its existence and area testify to the way they behave in response to that trust. Mere obedience to Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation. It can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily of all from a timorous people. Nor is license of behavior which so often accompanies the absence of Law, and which is miscalled Liberty, a proof of greatness. The true test is the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law … There is widespread tendency to regard the fact that [Government] can do a thing as meaning they may do it. There can be no more fatal error than this. Between can do and may do ought to exist the whole realm that recognizes the say of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste and all the other things that make life beautiful and society possible … I have borne in mind the great motto of William of Wykeham – Manners makyth Man …

The realm of Manners – Obedience to the Unenforceable – is also the realm of a well-formed Conscience. Blessed John Henry Newman once observed, “Conscience has rights because it has duties.” And St. John Paul reminded, “Freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”

Perhaps Lord Moulton was onto something.

“Manners makyth Man.”

You can read Lord Moulton’s complete speech Law and Manners in the Atlantic Monthly (July, 1924 issue)

Tod Worneris a husband, father, Catholic convert and practicing internal medicine physician. He blogs at A Catholic Thinker.

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